Melghat, which literally translates into a confluence of hills, also has the unsavoury distinction of being the malnutrition capital in India’s richest state – Maharashtra. But the arid forested region of Amravati district is determined to shake off the dubious tag, and has made it to a shortlist for a coveted national award on public services. At the centre of the dramatic turnaround is Harisal village, which was adopted by Microsoft to be developed as India’s first ideal digital village. Underpinned by public health initiatives of the state government, the village is now in the reckoning for the Prime Minister’s Award for excellence in Public Administration, and may provide a replicable public-service delivery model for the whole state.
Two key initiatives began turning the wheel, Maharashtra government officials told ET. “First, we decided that the piecemeal approach of just increasing access to fair-price shops was not going to solve the problem. In villages like Harisal, this never helped curb malnutrition,” said a senior Maharashtra government official. Second, the government sought a comprehensive view of the population in the region to find a solution to the seemingly endemic health problem.Villages like Harisal score significantly low in all the Human Development Index parameters, such as education, employment, and income levels. The government’s next big initiative was, therefore, built around the granularity of data.
A top government official said that when Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis met Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during his US trip in 2015, one of the things they discussed concerned digital solutions for chronic problems in villages. Microsoft has used its ‘white space’ technology, the unused spectrum between two TV channels, to provide free internet connectivity to Harisal and neighbouring villages. The service has been provided for free and Microsoft has also deputed its officials who are engaging with the Maharashtra government to find different technological solutions for Harisal.
“Microsoft decided to partner us in digitally connecting the village. Our goal was to make the villagers self reliant, increase employment, boost their incomes, and provide medical services. We chose Harisal because it had one of the worst HDI parameters and if it was successful here, we could replicate it anywhere in the state,” said Praveen Pardeshi, additional chief secretary to Fadnavis. Solutions were simple. “For instance, we found that while Amravati is a textile hub, weavers from West Bengal would be working in Amaravati simply because the locals like those in Harisal did not know how to weave. So, we got in touch with the Dayalbaugh Educational Institute and taught the village women how to weave. In two years, the results have been so good that it is these women who are finding jobs in Amravati.”
The villagers had expertise in making bamboo products such as mats, vases, bowls and baskets, but they did not get the right price for their products as middlemen would take the bulk of the profits. The situation has changed now as the state has laid an optical fibre network and installed Wifi in the villages. The villagers who have been taught how to use the Internet now sell their produce online, and get a much better price for their products. Ironically the villagers who didn’t know how to use a cellphone two years back now communicate through Skype. To tackle the dismal literacy rates in Harisal, the state tied up with Hewlett Packard and a state of the art e Classroom was built, where the medium of teaching was in the local language and lessons were taught in short films and movies on television screens. The interactive mode of teaching has even surprised many as for the first time students have not dropped out before reaching the 10th or 12th standard.
To overcome the lack of basic health-care facilities, the state tied up with Amravati Super-specialty Hospital and JJ Hospital to provide tele-medicine. On an appointed day of the week, the villagers queue up at the tele-medicine centre to ‘meet’ their doctor. Similarly, to tackle the issue of cataracts and other eye ailments, the state has tied up with Dr B Venkateshwara Rao eye care centre, which has set up a mobile unit in Harisal. Now villagers don’t have to travel to Amravati 120 kilometres away.
Solar power panels have been installed to provide power, and to train students further, ICT (Information and Communication Technology) classes are being held for them. To boost crop productivity, soil testing services have been made available to the villagers who are now advised on the crop to be sown. The state is now looking to further scale up the development programmes in Harisal, and is exploring a partnership with ‘C-DAC for providing mobile units with satellite communications to reach specialist doctors in the city to tackle mortality related to childbirth. “There are 54 villages near Harisal, and a few of them have already started taking advantage of the government’s initiatives,” said a government official, referring to the proposed geographic expansion of the project. Officials said that Amravati Collector Kiran Gitte executed the project along with a core team at the Chief Minister’s Office, led by Praveen Pardeshi, and Officers on Special Duty Kasutubh Dhavse and Zorawar Gill.